- - Sunday, September 21, 2014


By Gen. Tony Zinni with Tony Koltz
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 256 pages

Retired Marine CorpsGen. Tony Zinni is one of the most respected and experienced military officers that the United States has produced in recent memory. He offers some reflections in “Before the First Shots Are Fired,” his latest book, on the sad state of American strategy and what might be done to fix it. Along with co-author Tony Koltz, he has put together a thoughtful examination of what is wrong with American strategy and how he believes it can be fixed.

Gen. Zinni’s first combat experience was as an adviser in Vietnam; his final one was leading the United States Central Command in the Desert Fox bombing campaign. In between, he commanded the highly successful evacuation of U.N. troops from Somalia. He also directed operations in the original successful humanitarian operations in Kurdistan in 1991 and Somalia in 1992-93. He knows war and operations short of war as well or better than anyone else.

Gen. Zinni is clearly worried about the current state of American civil-military operations. We have a generation of combat-experienced veterans leading the military and a group of callow Ivy League, poll-driven politically savvy lightweights who are supposed to be giving them the civilian control that the Constitution calls for. There is inevitable friction and misunderstanding. Although the book was written before the current Iraq-Syria crisis, our current situation is a poster child for the problem that Gen. Zinni describes. President Obama has outlined a strategic vision that we are not willing to devote the resources to implement.

The author thinks that the lack of military experience of so many of our policymakers cripples their strategic judgment. He acknowledges that some of our best strategic minds, such as Franklin Roosevelt, did not have direct military experience. They had good education and years of experience in national-level decision-making. By contrast, Barack Obama had two undistinguished years as a junior senator and before that was an Illinois state senator and community organizer.

From a policy perspective, Gen. Zinni thinks that the current administration’s tilt toward the Pacific is ill-advised. In his mind, the real threats remain in Eurasia and in the Middle East. He is worried that we have overcommitted our military resources and has some innovative ideas on how to fix what is wrong.

I have known the general for many years. When I was a battalion commander on Okinawa in the ‘80s, he commanded a regiment. On certain Fridays, we would assemble the officers from our two units for professional military education at our respective camps’ officers clubs followed by a beer. My officers always looked forward to his presentations. He was entertaining and a straight shooter. One of my favorite Zinni stories is of a meeting of four-star generals at the Pentagon. The commander of forces in Europe, a well-known prima donna, arrived in a cavalcade with a host of camp followers. Gen. Zinni arrived in a taxi and carried his own bags.

Perhaps his most controversial suggestion in the book is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff system be changed. At the current time, the collective body is made up of service chiefs. The author feels that this is too parochial. He suggests that the body be made up of former service chiefs and four-star joint commanders; presumably, there would be a mix from each of the services. He also wants to abolish the service secretaries, and that will cause a stir in the Pentagon.

Perhaps one of the general’s most cogent observations is the usefulness of high-level war games in preparing high-level officials for handling crises. However, he notes the principals seldom participate in the events. The general excuse is “real-world” commitments. In actuality, it is probably out of fear that they may be embarrassed by the results. Sadly, their deficiencies are then revealed in real-world situations. Perhaps Congress could help here by mandating that the funding for the White House and National Security Council be contingent on the president and his national security advisers participating in at least one such game a year. Mr. Obama could certainly benefit from such experiences.

I tend to like books that I agree with, and I agree with most of his recommendations. However, I do think that his suggestion that the service secretariats be abolished is not a good idea. These organizations are useful in having their well-connected civilians help their respective services in the fight for scarce resources. Nevertheless, the book is an excellent tutorial on strategy. Gen. Zinni is right, we need to fix some things before the first shots are fired.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide